How To Engage College Students in Remote Classrooms


College professors who are making the adjustment to remote classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic are grappling with a unique set of challenges. Whether adjusting to working from home for the first time or figuring out how to keep students engaged online, the challenges may seem overwhelming. However, there are a number of actions professors can take to make their jobs easier.

The first step is to get used to this new reality. To ease the transition, you should establish rituals that will help you build the discipline you’ll need to work remotely. 

“Take a shower, get dressed, even if it’s not what you’d usually wear to work, then get started on the day’s activities,” writes Tsedal Neeley in Harvard Business Review. “If you’re used to moving physically, make sure you build that into your day. If you’re an extrovert and accustomed to a lot of contact and collaboration with others, make sure that still happens. Ask yourself: How will I protect myself from feeling lonely or isolated and stay healthy, productive, and vibrant? Create that for yourself.”

Engaging Students in a Virtual Classroom

In order to improve your students’ remote learning experience, you’re going to need to build a personal connection with them—just as you would in a physical classroom.

“Those of us who present, facilitate, and teach for a living understand the importance of developing a personal connection with an audience,” Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior and International Management at Brandeis University, writes in Harvard Business Review. “It’s critical to be and feel natural; to make people laugh, feel at ease, and fully engage—and perhaps even lose themselves—in the content you’re delivering. That’s why it feels so unnatural and awkward to create this kind of atmosphere in a virtual environment where you have no in-person audience at all.”

Luckily, most online learning platforms come with tools and features that not only allow you to engage with students, but may also make it even easier to do so than in physical classrooms. Here is Molinksy’s advice on how to build connection with students using these platforms.

Tips for Creating Engaging Remote Environments

  • Show up before they do. When your students log in to your virtual classroom, make sure your face is the first thing they see. For smaller classes, greet each student as they arrive. If your online classroom will involve video, let students know beforehand to give them a chance to prepare. Because some students may be self conscious about how they appear on screen, this advanced notice is important.
  • Be warm. Make eye contact with the camera, smile, and use an engaging tone. Make sure the camera is level with your face. When speaking to students, use their names, and invite them to speak as long as they are comfortable.
  • Take advantage of your online learning system’s engagement features. With the rights tools, your students can still engage with classmates online. For example, you can encourage your students to comment using chat features while you lecture. If a student makes an interesting point, you can invite them to share their insights with the class. Your online learning platform may also include other tools that can help increase engagement. Check to see if polling tools and break out rooms are among the available features. You can use polling tools to check for student engagement and understanding. Some students may not want to interrupt the lecture to ask for clarification, so offering these “check-ins” will allow them to anonymously communicate whether or not they understand the material.  Experiment with using break out rooms to place students into small groups in order to discuss lectures or solve problems. They can then share with the class afterwards similar to a group presentation.

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Molinsky, Andy. (19 March 2020). Virtual Meetings Don’t Have to Be A Bore. Harvard Business Review.

Neeley, Tsedal. (16 March 2020). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review.

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